Category Archives: Alexander Technique

‘Core strength and stability’?…but we’re vertebrates!

Skeleton doing plankYou won’t find many Alexander Technique teachers talking about ‘core stability’ or ‘core strength’. This is the notion that a core group of abdominal muscles exists that can be strengthened through specific exercises to provide us with better posture and a ‘strong and stable back’ 😉. The idea arose in the late 1990s and seems to have found a place in mainstream thinking. This place, however, is not deserved as researchers and health practitioners from a range of different disciplines now believe that ‘core stability’ is something of a myth (see the links at the end of this post).

For sure, so-called ‘core strength’ exercises can help you look more ‘streamlined’ if that is what you want, but there is very little evidence to support the idea that targeted ‘core strength and stability’ exercises are particularly good for back pain, or for our general health and well-being. Instead, the focus on bracing and pulling in the stomach may make things worse – encouraging us to hold even more muscular tension and placing destabilising forces on the spine.

It is now well accepted that it’s actually exercise in general and everyday activity that helps people recover from and prevent back pain. Of course, Pilates or yoga can be a great help here; just be aware that in a well-taught class you are unlikely to find a focus on ‘core’ or other specific muscles. There is also good evidence that Alexander Technique lessons are an effective approach for long-term resolution of back pain.

From an Alexander Technique perspective, we are intricate, finely tuned beings that work best when we allow ourselves to function as an integrated mind-body whole. We are also a lot stronger when we use ourselves as an interconnected whole rather than as if we consist of ‘separate parts’, which is a common concept of ourselves. So here’s one example – if I want to push open a heavy door and my underlying, largely subconscious, concept of strength is that it’s my arms that do all the pushing, then I’m going to find it harder work than if I simply put my arms out and use my body weight to send the door out of the way as I walk through it. In an Alexander lesson, we become aware of the countless ways in which we tend to make life harder for ourselves through our habitual ways of doing things. We also discover how everything is a lot less effort when we are shown how we can allow ourselves to work in a more integrated, coordinated and balanced way.

Humans are vertebrates, just like dogs and horses, and so at the physical core of our whole being you’ll find our spine and skull. Alexander teachers are interested in how well a person is working as a whole, and the head / neck / back dynamic relationship is a good indicator of this. Our head and spine constitute our central coordinating axis – and it was FM Alexander who discovered that, in this respect, we’re just like other vertebrates. Think of a deer or cheetah running and you’ll see a beautifully poised head leading the movement and the body seems to just flow along behind. Even though we are on two feet rather than four, the same principle applies. Most of us start out with pretty efficient, well-coordinated movement (think of the free, easy movement and balance of most 2–3 year-olds). However, we tend to lose some of this coordination and balance as we gradually adapt ourselves to our environment, which is usually a largely sedentary world of chairs, tables and computers. We tend to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, including over-use of our arms and legs, which compromises the natural length and springiness of the spine.

The ideal situation is that all our muscles are doing the appropriate amount of work required for any given task at any given time, so we need to be able to continually adapt according to what we’re doing. In general, however, our muscles tend to be doing too much work, as holding tension is a very common habit. In contrast, the system of deep muscles associated mostly with the spine and head that provide us with postural support is usually in need of a bit of waking up. It’s all a matter of balance and, with such a complex system, there’s no way we can directly bring that balance about through any specific exercises. Alexander lessons provide a practical and effective approach to this problem. Through learning greater self-awareness and from direct experience of guided movement we can re-discover the central coordinating role of our ‘true core’, the healthy dynamic relationship between our head and spine. When this is working better, we’re more able to let go of unwanted muscular tension and discover easier, freer movement.

So, if you’re a vertebrate and would like to discover how you can access your ‘true core strength and stability’, find yourself a registered Alexander Technique teacher – feel free to get in touch if you’re in the Edinburgh / East Lothian area or search find your local teacher here.

Read more about the myth of core stability:

Eyal Lederman: http://www.cpdo.net/Lederman_The_myth_of_core_stability.pdf

Peter O’Sullivan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YezBG_NdLgs&feature=player_embedded

Emma Wightman: http://www.stockbridgeosteopathicpractice.com/the-myth-of-core-stability-part-1.html

https://trustme-ed.com/blog/the-problem-with-core-stability

Prevention is better than cure

Alexander Technique as health and safetyIs it just me, or do you find when looking for car insurance that none of the categories in the online drop-down employment list accurately describe your job? Not surprisingly the category I wanted (‘Alexander Technique teacher’) didn’t exist, but none of the available options seemed even remotely relevant to what I do. When I came across the category of ‘health and safety consultant’ I immediately thought of someone on a building site wearing one of those bright yellow hard hats. But then it dawned on me that ‘health and safety consultant’ is actually quite a good description of our work as Alexander teachers – helping people to look after their health and wellbeing, and prevent injuries and accidents in everyday life.

In a previous post I talked about how I use the Alexander Technique to help keep me safe day-to-day. Here I’ll say a few things about how learning the Alexander Technique can benefit our long-term health.

Although I’ll never be able to prove it, I am convinced that I’d be in a bit of a state by now if 20 years ago I hadn’t decided to take up the Alexander Technique. I do know that at that time I had daily low-level neck ache and the beginnings of RSI linked to extensive computer use and, more worryingly, I had a family history of severe neck and back problems. When I decided to begin Alexander lessons I was seeing it as my attempt at an ‘insurance policy’ for my future heath. It’s very clear to me now that the Alexander Technique is essentially preventative in nature – promoting health in its broadest sense, rather than treating specific issues. At that time, however, I didn’t know much about it and I don’t even remember how I first heard about it – all I remember is that I was scared that I might end up with similar problems to my mum and brother and was willing to try anything that might help me protect my long-term health.

So how can learning and applying the Alexander Technique impact on our health over a lifetime? Anyone who has had a reasonable number of Alexander lessons will be very aware of, and enjoy, how differently they move, sit, stand and even breathe, compared with their previous habitual ways of being and doing. They’re also likely to notice a tendency towards a calmer, more open, and more self-confident attitude to life. Our current physical and mental state is a reflection of the cumulative conditions of our existence/experience leading up to this point. So it’s easy to see that if, for example, we learn to move more effortlessly with less stress and strain on our back, neck and joints, that this might have beneficial consequences over the long term in terms of flexibility, aches & pains and so-called ‘wear and tear’ conditions such as osteoarthritis. One of the more subtle and intangible benefits, however, is the greater understanding and acceptance of oneself that comes from taking on board the Technique. This is accompanied by a growing sense of oneself as a whole, rather than having a concept of ‘self’ as essentially being the mind, which is then carried around by a separate (and not always trustworthy) body.

One evening last week I found my right knee suddenly really jarred when I was going upstairs. I immediately stopped and considered the situation – was it something I’d done in that moment of climbing the stairs? And/or, had I slightly twisted and injured my knee without realising it when I’d been clambering over the rocks at Joppa beach earlier that day? Not knowing the answer to these questions, and certainly not wanting to make the situation worse, I was left with the fact that all I could usefully do in that moment was to apply my usual Alexander thinking and see what happened. So I gave myself a few seconds to bring my awareness back to myself, noticing my contact with the supporting surface of the step beneath me and thinking of the direction upwards, all the way up my spine through the top of my head up towards the ceiling, and the idea of my knees going ‘forwards and away’ (‘classic’ Alexander thoughts – or directions as we like to call them). I reminded myself that I was likely to automatically anticipate another experience of pain with my next step, and so invited myself to put such thoughts aside. Then, mindfully, I took another step – wow, no pain at all, my knee was fine!

We have three flights of stairs in our house so as I gradually continued up towards the top, I had plenty of time to find out what effect my thinking was having. Half way up, my mind wandered onto something else and then suddenly ‘Ouch’ again! So, giving myself a moment to renew my Alexander directions, I set off again and was fine all the way up to the top floor. In the course of that evening I found that each time I went up or down the stairs, or crouched down to pick something up I had no knee pain – but only as long as I remembered to think my Alexander directions; otherwise, each time that I didn’t stay ‘present’, it hurt!

I don’t always have such a clear-cut experience of the power of thought – Alexander-informed thought. It’s usually much more subtle e.g. walking might seem to become slightly easier and smoother when I change my thinking. But it did make me realise how important is the way we respond in that first moment of something going wrong. Our response can significantly influence the longer-term outcome, either aiding a speedy recovery or (unintentionally) predisposing to a worsening of the situation.

Now of course pain is a very useful immediate reaction whenever we encounter anything that is harmful. It’s how from a young age we learn to protect ourselves by knowing what to avoid etc. But a pain response can sometimes become entrenched unnecessarily. An experience of pain makes us anticipate pain again whenever we repeat the same action/are in the same situation. However, pain anticipation results in a whole-body/self response that includes tightening up and this in itself makes it more likely that pain will recur. So we can get stuck in a vicious circle of pain which can become persistent and remain long after any original tissue damage has healed up. There is now a lot of research on persistent (chronic) pain and ‘brain plasticity’, and one helpful and accessible insight into this is Steve Haine’s booklet, Pain is really strange.

My experience of knee pain that day led me back to memories of times prior to learning the Alexander Technique and the way I would react whenever anything went awry. Typically, any experience of unexpected pain or discomfort would unleash a stream of ‘what if’ thinking – for example ‘is this the start of osteoarthritis?’. But now, using the practical thinking skills I’ve learnt, together with a more accepting and curious attitude to the current situation, I was able to work through the present problem. I presumably had some kind of minor injury but preventing my reactions from making it any worse allowed my natural self-healing capacities to do their stuff. After a couple of days I didn’t even have any twinges in my knee.

Of course I can’t ever know for sure if my Alexander thinking had any role in preventing a minor injury potentially turning into something more serious or long-term – but I’ve had enough similar experiences over the years that I’m convinced that the Alexander Technique has had a major impact on protecting my health for the long-term. And of course there are now several clinical trials that back up my own personal experience, with evidence of how learning and applying the Alexander Technique can impact on some long-term health conditions.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can use the Alexander Technique to help protect your long-term health do get in touch if you live in or around Edinburgh, or look for events or teachers in your area.

The answer to life, the universe and everything

Balance through the Alexander TechniqueIn the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, Douglas Adams’ famously cited the answer to life, the universe and everything as ‘42’. Looking at this ‘ultimate question’ from the perspective of an Alexander Technique teacher, I’d suggest that a more helpful and plausible answer might be ‘balance’.

Whether it’s life balance, balance in movement, or emotional balance – balance is something most of us aspire to. Perhaps surprisingly, even in such everyday activities as sitting or standing, we do not readily or regularly achieve a state of physical balance. Balance is a dynamic process and habits such as locking knees and other joints will interfere with this, as any rigidity prevents the natural and very subtle postural sway. Our physical balance is also affected by our tendency to ‘live in the future’ rather than being in the present moment, with our minds one step ahead of our bodily selves. For example, while I’m reaching out for something, my mind tends to already be onto the next action – thinking what I’m going to be doing with the object I’m just about to take hold of. The result can be that I very readily pull myself slightly off balance in reaching out, rather than allowing myself to take that necessary extra step closer. Unless we are in balance, we have to over-use muscles in order to stay upright and in position. So frequently being slightly off balance is one source of excess muscular tension.

In Alexander Technique lessons, people learn how to come into a state of balance and how to maintain this while moving, standing, sitting etc – they’re often surprised by the experience of ease and pleasure that this brings. They also learn how to use awareness and intention to carry this through into the rest of their daily lives – discovering how to find better balance in everyday activities, reducing the habitual tension patterns that are no longer needed to ‘hold themselves up’.

Equally as desirable as ‘physical’ balance is ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’ balance. When we’re in a state of equilibrium we feel more able to deal with the world and calmly consider different options or perspectives, without jumping to a decision or viewpoint based solely on preconceived ideas or simple habit. When we practise Alexander thinking we can find a better ‘mental / emotional’ balance. Rather than just reacting immediately in a ‘knee-jerk’ habitual way, we learn to give ourselves more space and time in which we can choose whether and how to respond to what life throws at us. And in that brief moment of non-responding, as we bring our awareness to ourselves and form a clear intention of what we do and don’t want, everything has a chance to organise and we come into a better state of physical balance. And vice versa – so if, for example, I’m nicely balanced on my sitting bones on the chair while typing this, I’m going to feel a bit calmer than I would if I were hunched over my computer. So, from an Alexander perspective, we’re not composed of separate physical and mental entities but as one mind-body self. A better sense of ourselves as embodied beings leaves us better placed to tackle life’s ‘ups and downs’.

We’re encouraged by our culture to look for certainty and absolutes (‘work as hard as you can’ rather than ‘do a good job and go home at a reasonable time’; ‘be the fastest’ rather than just ‘enjoy your run’; ‘make sure you make the right choice’ rather than ‘weigh it all up and go with what seems the best option’ etc). However, very little in life is black and white, and extremes in any aspect of life are generally not desirable. We sometimes set ourselves unrealistic goals and then give up disheartened when we don’t immediately achieve the desired outcome.

As we begin to apply the Alexander Technique in our daily lives we become more aware of the physical and thinking habits that tend to pull us off balance, and we learn how to reduce this interference. We also discover that when our intention is clear, we are more able to focus on the desired direction of travel and to fixate less on wanting immediate results.

It’s not about trying to achieve some state of perfect balance in all things and at all times, but rather, by using the Alexander Technique we can continue to find a better balance in our lives. In a nutshell, the Alexander Technique is about awareness, intention and balance. Greater awareness of ourselves, together with clear intention, tend to lead to better balance (in all senses of the word) both in the moment and for the long term.

 

Learning how to learn

Alexander Technique helps you balanceMy first experience of sitting on a horse was when I was in my twenties and it ended with me gradually sliding off sideways on to the ground when the horse suddenly broke into a trot. My second experience was a few years’ later and was slightly different – this horse decided to throw me over its head into the mud once it realised that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

Fast forward a decade to near the beginning of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher. As part of the course we were to visit the local riding school once a year. There we found gentle, sedate horses but, despite their slow pace, my previous experiences had left me somewhat apprehensive – not least because now we were to have no stirrups, nor reins to hold on to. I survived but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, particularly when we were asked to keep our eyes closed and arms raised out to the sides, even while the horse was turning around in the yard. However, when we returned a year later I realised how much progress I must have made in my Alexander training, as this time I found myself feeling much more confident and at ease. Clearly my balance had improved through the training and I was more able to just go with the experience, using my Alexander thinking skills to prevent me slipping into my old habits of panicking and tensing up.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to spend a morning with Alexander teacher and rider, Chrissy Pritchard at her beautiful place in Lanarkshire. Chrissy had offered her colleagues the opportunity of having a go at riding her highland pony. For me this would be the fifth time in my life when I had tried riding but my colleagues’ previous experience ranged from none at all to having ridden as a teenager. What impressed me was that, regardless of previous experience, we were all able to ride quite well after just a few words of instruction from Chrissy. This lovely morning reminded me that learning the Alexander Technique actually teaches us how to learn.

So how does the Alexander Technique help us learn? When learning a new skill the tendency is to fixate on the thing that we want to achieve, the goal, leaving little thinking space for what’s the best way of getting there. What the Alexander Technique enables us to do is to pay attention to the bigger picture, so that we can create the best conditions possible for achieving that goal (being in balance and poised, moving in a well-coordinated way etc). Here’s a glimpse of what the process was for me:

As always, there were my previous experiences in the back of my mind – not just of being on a horse but all those times I’ve been confronted with something new and ‘tried to get it right’. By acknowledging these thoughts but choosing not to react to them by ‘getting prepared’ (which usually involves tensing up and over-focusing on the outcome) I was able to stay more in the present rather than dwelling in the future or in the past. As I got onto the pony I took a moment to be aware of myself, the pony and our surroundings and then thought of the crown of my head leading the way upwards (rather than pressing down heavily on my foot in the stirrup). Then I was finding my balance on my sitting bones and continually coming back to an awareness of my sitting bones and the rest of me, as well as what was around me. Holding the reins as Chrissy showed me I aimed to notice if I started to grip at any point. Similarly, I paid attention to any tendency to grip the pony with my legs, wishing instead to let my legs hang suspended freely, with my weight dropping straight down through my sitting bones, while maintaining a good contact with the pony. At one point Chrissy suggested that I subtly shift my weight on the saddle and as I did this I noticed I came into a better balance and that the pony responded positively to this. Then setting off with a gentle nudge with my legs and a ‘walk on’.

One of the things that we get better at through the Alexander Technique is being clearer in our intention and less distracted by other stimuli. So, getting the pony to go in the direction we want is helped by looking ahead in the direction of travel and allowing our intention to come through ourselves to the pony – if I’m thinking of turning right, and as long I don’t allow my habits to interfere by tensing up, then my weight will tend to subtly shift with my intention, more onto my right sitting bone and the pony will get the message. So, applying the Alexander Technique involves self-awareness and making conscious choices over how we’d like to respond (think/move/act). Seeing to what extent we’re able to stick to those choices rather than just reverting back into habit is all part of the learning process and an interest in that process helps us not to over-focus on the particular goal in question.

Pony riding with Alexander Technique

Through our Alexander experience we just needed a few simple instructions from Chrissy, and we were all able to learn the basics of horse riding in just a few minutes. Obviously if we wanted to become expert horse riders, like anyone, we would need to practice the specific skills involved but we would have the benefit of the Technique to help us get to whatever level of riding expertise we wanted.

Thankfully, the Alexander Technique is being taught more and more in schools and colleges but people of all ages want to learn new skills during their lives – the Alexander Technique gives us the best approach to learning, and can be applied to anything.

The Alexander Technique keeps me safe

Stay safe with the Alexander TechniqueThis past month I’ve spent a lot of time driving up and down between Edinburgh and Bristol due to family illness. During this time I often found myself thinking ‘thank goodness for the Alexander Technique, I’m so lucky to have this skill!” – I was able to stay calm, aware and focused throughout, even when I’d had very little sleep and the road conditions were awful.

There have been countless times in my everyday life – for example, picking up something heavy, climbing a ladder, walking on uneven ground – when I’ve used the Alexander Technique to help me stay safe. How does this work? – by becoming more aware of oneself and what is happening moment by moment, and being able to give oneself a little bit of space and time in which to consider how best to respond in any given situation. So, for example, if I’m climbing up a ladder to wash the windows I’m very aware of my changing balance with each step – not trying to control or micro-manage, just staying present and paying attention to what I’m doing with myself rather than solely focusing on cleaning the windows. So if, for example, a rung is slippery I’m more likely to be able to adapt and stay in balance and so stay safe.

Less obvious perhaps but equally as important, is how learning the Alexander Technique is helpful for safety in its broader sense, particularly over the long term. So it’s not just about in-the-moment avoidance of accidents or strain – I’ve also protected my long-term health and well-being through the Technique. I’m convinced that without it I’d be a bit of a wreck now with neck pain and RSI – I was beginning to get signs of these developing before I started Alexander lessons. Through the lessons and my subsequent training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve integrated the Technique into my daily life for better balance, movement coordination and mindful calm.

I’ve discovered even I can enjoy running!

Alexander Technique RunningOne of my most hated aspects of school was being made to run all the way around the athletic track. As an unfit, poorly coordinated and totally non-sporty teenager, I really struggled and quickly reverted to walking – only to be shouted at by an unsympathetic teacher to ‘get running’ again. From then on I’ve never run, apart from for an occasional bus.

Since coming to the Alexander Technique my attitude to physical activity has gradually shifted, as my balance and coordination have improved. I began enjoying trying out different activities – happy that I didn’t need to ‘try and get it right’ but instead just playing with my Alexander thinking and enjoying having a go, safe in the knowledge that I now knew how to look after myself better in any activity. My latest venture is paddle boarding, which I’ve found can be harder than it looks on the sea off Portobello beach.

Despite my new-found enthusiasm for trying out ‘sporty type’ activities, my long-standing hatred of running remained…until a couple of weeks ago when I was introduced to some new ideas. Malcolm Balk, Alexander teacher, running coach and author was coming over from Canada to give a workshop in Edinburgh and I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I got in touch to ask if he would consider giving a second running workshop for Alexander teachers – not least to help us better tailor our Alexander teaching for our clients who run.

On a gloriously sunny Edinburgh day, I gathered with eight of my Alexander teacher colleagues for a morning’s workshop with Malcolm. After some warm-up exercises, he filmed each of us in turn as we ran a short distance. We then decamped back to base to view the results. How enlightening being able to clearly see one’s habits all played out in slow motion! Perhaps not surprisingly, as Alexander Technique teachers we all ‘passed the first test’ being pretty good at looking after our head/neck/back relationship, so we weren’t introducing a whole load of unnecessary tension in our necks (phew). But we were all doing various extraneous things not conducive to easy running – what on earth was I doing with my arms, did I need to be moving them quite as much as I was? We all had our own individual idiosyncrasies but on top of this we shared a tendency to a greater or lesser extent to ‘run with our legs’ rather than ‘on them’. In other words, the leading leg was coming right out in front of the rest of the body, such that the centre of mass then had to be ‘heaved’ over the top of it, rather than the legs being more underneath and behind the head/torso to allow propulsion forwards with a great deal less effort.

Having seen all this we then went back outside and Malcolm invited us to have a go at running in our usual way to get a sense of the unnecessary habits that he’d (in a very kind and helpful way) pointed out to us. This gave us a great opportunity to gain a better appreciation of what we were actually doing, by matching it up with what we’d seen. Knowing what it is that we’re doing that we don’t want to do is the first step in the process of change.

We then went on to the next stage which was introducing, one-by-one, some very simple thoughts together with a few basic instructions. Most approaches in life encourage us to try and work out what we need to do and we often end up trying to micromanage ourselves. The Alexander Technique is different and recognises that we work as a whole system. We’re much more complex than a machine, so we can’t possibly consciously decide what we need to do with each ‘bit of our body’ to carry out an action. Through the Alexander Technique we learn to use our conscious thinking to prevent or reduce unhelpful habits that are interfering with our natural movement coordination, poise and balance, as well as to create the best conditions we can for ourselves – that way or inherent neuromuscular processes can take care of what needs to happen to carry out any action. As Alexander himself put it, ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself’.

So, armed with a few simple thoughts, I began to trot off across the field and was amazed at the experience of how effortless it was. I had been making a lot of totally unproductive effort in trying to run and I now knew how to let this go. After a short while I heard Malcolm call out ‘Great, that’s it, you can stop now’ but I just kept on going – I was actually enjoying it!

“Really uplifted by it, really empowered by it…”

Embodiment and self efficacyThis description of an experience of learning the Alexander Technique comes from one of the participants in a large randomised controlled clinical trial for people with chronic neck pain. It is from a series of in-depth interviews that were carried out with some of the trial participants and which form the basis of a new publication by myself and other members of the ATLAS study team [1]. Our analysis explores the participants’ experiences of learning the Alexander Technique (or of having acupuncture, the second intervention evaluated in the trial) and contrasts these experiences with their previous medical care. The participants’ accounts of their experiences help to explain the basis for the observed clinical benefits in the trial of long-term reduction in neck pain and associated disability following Alexander lessons or acupuncture [2]. They also complement the trial findings of participants developing greater self-efficacy [3].

Here I look at the experiences of the participants who attended Alexander lessons. They reported that learning the Alexander Technique led to greater self-awareness, and they explained how applying the Alexander thinking skills led to a sense of more control over managing and overcoming their neck pain. Participants’ reflections include:

“Really uplifted by it, really empowered by it and really surprised at, at what I had experienced.” (Female)

“…you don’t really have to physically do anything, you’ve just got to think it… So you can be walking down the street and you can put it into practice, I can be at work…I had made my muscles go soft that for ten years hadn’t been, and that was just from my teacher just explaining what to do and just very lightly touching my shoulders and just…talking me through it.” (Female)

“You’re in control, you know.” (Male)

For many participants the increased self-awareness and a sense of interconnectedness and embodiment were integral to the transformative process they experienced. The perception of ‘neck pain’ could no longer be reducible to a ‘body part’.

“She looked at me as [a] whole rather than as a shoulder and a neck … And I’m not just learning to relax certain muscles that were the problem, it was everything, which, I suppose in some respects, just balanced, balanced me a lot better.” (Female, Interview 2)

“I’m a much calmer person, it’s taught me how to take a step back and assess a situation rather than jump straight in … because I’ve learnt how to do it, I’ve learnt how to take a step back, I’ve learnt how to relax my body.” (Female, Interview 1)

Participants described how they continued to use the understanding and skills they had gained, after the Alexander lessons had finished, to sustain and in some cases further improve their reduction in neck pain. For example, one participant said:

”The positive thing about [the Alexander Technique] is you can carry on doing the things that the teacher’s taught yah to help yah, and I do. And gradually it’s just got better and better, you know. And as for life changing, probably the Alexander’s changed me because I never used to realise it, but with being in pain you used to tend to be a bit short tempered and…. grumpy.” (Male, Interview 2)

Find out more

Our article is published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, read it here.

More on the ATLAS trial

ATLAS was a randomised, controlled trial that recruited 517 patients with chronic neck pain and evaluated one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons with a STAT-registered teacher, or acupuncture, each plus usual care, compared with usual care alone. The main clinical findings of this trial are published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine [2]. The trial demonstrated statistically significant and clinically meaningful reductions in neck pain and associated disability for both interventions compared with usual care alone. Read more about the study here.

  1. Aniela Wenham, Karl Atkin, Julia Woodman, Kathleen Ballard and Hugh MacPherson. Self-efficacy and embodiment associated with Alexander Technique lessons or with acupuncture sessions: A longitudinal qualitative sub-study within the ATLAS trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 2018;31:308–14.
  2. Hugh MacPherson, Helen Tilbrook, Stewart Richmond, Julia Woodman, Kathleen Ballard, et al. Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture sessions for persons with chronic neck pain: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2015;163:653−62.
  3. Julia Woodman, Kathleen Ballard, Catherine Hewitt, Hugh MacPherson. Self-efficacy and self-care-related outcomes following Alexander Technique lessons for people with chronic neck pain in the ATLAS randomised, controlled trial. European Journal of Integrative Medicine 2018;17:64–71. 

 

Is ‘text neck’ real?

Text neckI saw a recent newspaper article claiming that there is no such thing as ‘text neck’, saying that research has dismissed any link between use of mobile phones and neck pain. As is often the case with mainstream media, the journalist was basing this rather bold statement on the findings of just one small study [1].

The problem with this type of journalism is that large claims are based on small amounts of evidence, without taking into account the bigger picture. Had the journalist taken the trouble to look further, they would have discovered that quite a lot of research has already been done in this area. While the jury is still out, the weight of evidence is pointing towards the likelihood that there is a link between mobile technology use and neck and shoulder pain. For example, research published in 2017 reviewed all the studies to date that had examined a possible relationship between mobile touch screen technology use and musculoskeletal problems such as neck pain [2]. The researchers’ analysis of the 45 studies identified led to their conclusion that there is some (albeit limited) evidence of musculoskeletal problems, particularly neck and shoulder symptoms, associated with mobile technology use. They stressed that the evidence is limited, largely due to the lack of controlled and long-term studies, but they were sufficiently concerned to issue guidance, including reducing excessive time using mobiles [2].

We evolved in an environment very different from that of today. We were, no doubt, well adapted to that environment, moving through it with our heads beautifully ‘supported and suspended’ as part of our whole springy and dynamic upright structure. In this scenario, the considerable weight of our head (4.5kg or so!) did not cause us any undue strain, passing ‘straight down the plumb line’ into the ground rather than pulling the rest of our body down.

However, since the Industrial Revolution our environment has changed beyond recognition. The current world of seats, tables, cars, computers and mobile technology has changed how we spend our time, fundamentally restricting and constraining our everyday (moment-by-moment) movement into an uncomfortable mix of stasis and repetitive actions. We have developed an array of subconscious habits to try and adapt ourselves to this environment, and these are interfering with our natural movement coordination, postural support and balance. If you watch most people using a mobile, reading a book, or just looking down, you’ll see their head hanging forwards from the spine rather than pivoting at the joint at the top (see my article in TalkBack magazine for more on this [3]). With 4.5kg of weight pulling downwards for large parts of the day, it seems foolish to dismiss the possibility that neck and shoulder pain may result over the years.

While there is now a lot of attention paid to the amount of time spent on our mobiles, it may be more important to focus on how we use it – what do we do to ourselves while we are ‘lost’ in our virtual world? Why not conduct a little experiment – pick up your mobile and start reading a text or looking at social media. Ask yourself what gradually happens to your neck and shoulders, to your breathing, and to your awareness of the world around you? My belief is that – without an ability to avoid the usual habits around mobile phone use – it is likely to predispose to neck and shoulder pain over the long term. But it’s not just about biomechanics. Losing awareness of what’s around us and instead focusing our attention narrowly on our mobiles, we tend to become tense and rigid, affecting our breathing, balance and our sense of being ‘grounded’. So paradoxically, even while we are rushing about our busy days, on the move and on our mobiles, we can actually become quite frozen and fixed.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I help people recognise what’s happening to themselves as they use their mobile, or indeed as they carry out any activity (sitting, lifting, walking etc). I then show them how they can reduce unhelpful habits so that they can lead their daily lives with more poise and freedom, and less effort. Using a mobile well

Consider finding out more about the Alexander Technique if you’d like to be able to look after yourself better and stay grounded in the real world – and not just when you’re using your mobile.

 

  1. Gerson Moreira Damasceno GM, et al. Text neck and neck pain in 18–21-year-old young adults. European Spine Journal, January 2018;1–6.
  2. Toh SH, et al. The associations of mobile touch screen device use with musculoskeletal symptoms and exposures: A systematic review. PLoS One, August 2017;12(8):e0181220.
  3. How the Alexander Technique can help you avoid ‘text neck’, Julia Woodman. TalkBackquarterly magazine of BackCare. Summer 2016 Issue; 20–21 (or click here for PDF; reproduced with kind permission).

I’m not an Olympic athlete but…

Ski raceAs the competitors return home from the Winter Olympics, I’m pondering which ones might have been using the Alexander Technique to help them achieve their personal bests and stay free of injury. Certainly, previous Olympians have described how using it was integral to winning their medals and sustaining their careers, including 2012 British Dressage Team Gold medal winner Carl Hester who said ‘The Alexander Technique is one of the most valuable tools a rider can possess’.

You might think you’ve not much in common with an Olympic athlete but most of us would like to be able to reach our full potential. Your breathing, movement and clarity of thinking can be improved through the Alexander Technique – and that is going to be beneficial to performance in any sport or activity. Research has demonstrated how training in the Alexander Technique leads to improved movement coordination, balance and postural support. Just as important, the Alexander Technique enables one to stay present and focused.

For many of us, remaining injury free is as high a priority as achieving the best times. Again, better balance and coordination is key here but also important is the growing self-awareness that allows us to know our limitations and avoid the all-too easy slip into only focusing on the desired result (‘endgaining’) without paying attention to what we’re actually doing in that moment.

So whether you’re a serious competitor or enjoy a gentle jog round the local park, consider finding out how the Alexander Technique can help you reach your goals without compromising your long-term health.

How can I change?

Choose change

It’s the beginning of January and some of us may find ourselves struggling to put into practice our New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions usually involve a desire for change – to either achieve or to be something different to now. We start off with good intentions but then find that making change happen can be incredibly difficult, particularly if it’s to be long-lasting. If we fail, it’s very easy to believe that it’s due to a lack of ‘willpower’, or because of factors that are beyond our control. Well, of course we can’t do much about factors beyond our control but we can take a look at ourselves and ask the question of what does it really take in order to be able to change?

The Alexander Technique is a method for self-change. It provides us with the thinking tools to become more aware of ourselves and our habits, and gives us a practical, thoughtful and embodied approach to bringing about change. It works with the way we think, react, act, move and be – and, because we’re dealing with such fundamentals, it gives us a process for getting to the real root of a problem. Instead of fixating on the desired goal, we learn to give ourselves time and to pay attention to how we go about achieving the goal. This also means we are more likely to set realistic goals and so are more likely to achieve them. The approach is to prioritise looking after ourselves throughout the process of working towards our goal. It’s a more sustainable approach than the ‘all or nothing’ attitude that often leads us to give up at the first hurdle.

The Alexander Technique can be applied in every aspect of life, helping us to make the changes that we want to make – from learning how to exercise without injury to reducing postural and movement habits that might be the cause of back or neck pain. Some of the hardest habits to shift can be thinking habits, and learning the Alexander Technique helps us to change our thinking. The American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey found that it enabled him to change his intellectual position on an issue whenever new evidence emerged to challenge it – he contrasted this with other academic thinkers who continued to hold rigidly to one position come what may [1].

If you’d like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you make changes, consider booking an introductory lesson. Be sure to choose a qualified, registered teacher – members of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) have undertaken 3 years’ full-time professional training. If you live around Edinburgh you might like to consider myself or one of my colleagues. Visit the STAT directory to find a teacher local to you.

  1. Frank Pierce Jones. Freedom to change. Mouritz, London, 3rd edition, 1997; p97.